You know when you read something or come across a new term and immediately feel a pang of recognition when you realise it’s something you subconsciously do? Or is that just me? When I first came across the term “trauma dumping” I felt a paroxysm of guilt.
The term, coined by psychologists, refers to the method people use to “dump” their traumatic thoughts, feelings and issues onto others as a way of processing their emotions. Psychologist and Oxford University fellow Nelisha Wickremasinghe, author of Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillation, told the Daily Mail that oversharing had become “the norm”.
“Over-emoting is encouraged and has become the norm on social media and in talk and reality shows,” she said. “What’s more, there’s now a mountain of self-help manuals and messages instructing us to get in touch with our feelings and tell each other about them.”
However, Wickremasinghe said the lines had become too blurred between what to share with a friend and a professional – and what to keep to yourself. Dumping on others could, she concluded, be “toxic”. To which I say, with respect, what nonsense. Sharing our feelings is how women connect and communicate – and have done for centuries, probably since we lived in caves and mainly talked to each other through eye rolls and grunts.
There are certain boundaries, of course, and I wouldn’t share my personal problems with strangers – but I’d say so-called “trauma dumping” was a fundamental and intrinsic component of female friendship. Working from home (WHF) with only the dog and two needy cats for company, I often find I save up my problems ready to offload when I see a friend for a catch-up. I usually spend a good 10 to 15 minutes having a whinge – from the latest meltdown one of my children has had, to my insomnia. I expect them to do the same, and they almost always do.
I have one friend who is never on time and usually spends the first 10 minutes after she has arrived explaining precisely why she was late, from struggling to try and get one of her children to sleep, to not being able to find her coat with the fur collar. Once we’ve got that out the way, we can get onto the other stuff and start putting the world to rights. The idea that this is “toxic” is, in my view, outlandish.
Wickremasinghe said the act of trauma dumping can sometimes suggest the person is experiencing a deeper psychological problem, such as borderline personality or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may be the case in a very small number of people, but I would say the reciprocal sharing of our day-to-day problems, the minutiae of our lives and the things that we don’t post about on social media is precisely how women bond.
Hearing about my friend’s row with her husband (and offering some heartfelt advice) is what unites us. It’s what makes me realise that the facade we put on for others and for social media – nonchalant smiles, family photos, work achievements – is precisely that: a facade.
When I moan about only having a few hours of sleep the night before and hear one of my friends is also suffering with insomnia, I find it reassuring because I realise I’m not alone – and I hope she does too.
Plus, often, as women, we’re not looking for solutions; we just want to sound things out. And we live such isolated lives now, thanks to the pandemic. With so many of us WFH, I think sharing these sorts of things is even more important and life-affirming.
Wickremasinghe said trauma dumping could also be a consequence of what she calls the “threat brain” – the part of our emotion system that is alert to (and responds to) danger.
“An overactive threat brain will flood us with powerful feelings and thoughts which, if we do not soothe and contain them, will eventually spill out in daily life and relationships,” she has explained. “Our threat brain can be activated by both real and imagined threats which is why, for some people, relatively minor problems can feel terrifying – our ability to replay, imagine and overthink makes it so.”
Again, I can’t help but disagree. For me, talking about my issues or worries helps diffuse that sense of threat, restores me to some sort of equilibrium and helps put things into perspective. We shouldn’t shame other women – or ourselves – for “trauma dumping” when it’s probably one of the few things that helps to keep us sane.